Children will go through a variety of stages of development with regard to drawing, including a stage of scribbling1:
Kellogg (1967), in her studies of the children's scribbles, has show that children universally proceed through the same series of stages in their early art development. The approximate life cycle of scribbling begins at age two, or even earlier, and extends through ages four and five.
Drawing Development in Children has a good chart with some examples taken from two experts on the subject.
Zero to Three discusses some of the stages in more detail.
The stages discussed on the pages are taught or touched upon in art classes, child development courses, and some types of psychology classes.
Your child would be considered to be in the Scribbling Stage or Placement Stage. What's exciting is that you mentioned she's naming her scribbles now, such as calling one "monkey". Viktor Lowenfield, in the first citation above, says: "Soon they begin to name scribbles, an important milestone in development."
Now, there are ways to encourage her to continue drawing that hopefully don't lead to an outburst of frustration because of physical limitations. Some of these suggestions are from Zero to Three, or any number of websites. Others are my observations as an artist and a father.
Draw regularly, and make it play, not work
Drawing is an exercise, and can easily begin to feel like work. Your child is exercising their body, as they development fine and gross motor control, and they're exercising cognitive processes as they're trying to express themselves in a physical, visual format.
One of the best ways to engage someone in learning and exercise is by making it fun and interactive.
Here are some things we do with my son:
- I'll take requests, and draw for him anything from "Owls" to "Iron Man", but leave the image incomplete so he can fill in the details. He really enjoys adding eyes, mouths, and noses (even if I haven't finished yet!)
- We'll trace each other's hands. Tracing hands is fun! This activity takes off some of the cognitive burden of trying to translate a mental thought into a tangible image. The other day, I traced his hand and then drew and colored on top of it to turn it into an Iron Man hand! My wife often makes hand/feet into animals or objects (such as tractors).
- We'll make outlines for him to trace.
- We'll give him other things to put on the paper, and he'll incorporate those into his drawing. For instance, stickers or sticky googly eyes.
- We'll draw something together and discuss what parts it needs. For instance, if we're drawing a dog, I'll ask what part we should draw. If he says, "Tail!" then we'll draw a tail, even if it comes from the dog's forehead. I'll also make suggestions, such as "This dog should have a tongue, where should we put it?" This activity narrows down the purpose of each stroke: he doesn't have to conceptualize an entire dog, but only a part at a time. Then, each part is placed with the clear intent of being that part, which in our experience leads to more satisfaction on his part that he did it right (in his own eyes).
Also remember to realize your child's limitations. Even fun activities stop being fun after a time, and the brain and body will need a break. It'll be better to switch gears and provide the break as soon as you sense your child becoming frustrated.
Use engaging, positive communication
One of the most frustrating things for any artist in when you draw a specific object or concept, and then someone comes along and asks if it's a different object. It unintentionally sends the message of, "You must not have done it right, since I couldn't recognize it."
I think even toddlers can feel some of this frustration. Here's how I'd mitigate it:
- Ask your child what they're going to draw before or during the actual drawing
Comment on or compliment your child on what they're doing, not necessarily what they're making. Zero To Three had some great examples of this:
Take a few moments to observe your child’s work: Look at the lines you are making—there are so many of them! Or, That picture is really interesting. Those colors make me feel happy. Or, I see you are working really hard on your drawing. Or just: Tell me about your picture. Then see if your child is interested in sharing more.
Refer to the drawing as whatever your child calls it. If it's a monkey to her, then call it a monkey. This reinforces that their attempt at drawing an object was successful, and encourages future attempts.
Focus on the process, not the product2. Although using outlines and templates, as mentioned above, can still be fun for toddlers, you'll want to balance it with other activities where they have more control.
Remember, toddlers are more interested in the process of a work. It is adults who feel a need for a cute product to send home for display. Toddlers are delight with their scribbles and should be urged toward autonomy in their designs, not restricted to an adult's stenciled shape.
Use a variety of materials
Even fat, toddler-oriented crayons and markers require grip and dexterity that can be difficult for young children. There are 35 muscles between the forearm and hand, and quite a few of them are necessary for controlling those implements. Some of these muscles are very small and can tire quickly (as I'm personally relearning in physical therapy exercises for my hand/arms).
Crayons, in my opinion, are actually one of the hardest child-oriented mediums to use. The wax is hard, requiring firm pressure to make marks. The inclusion of this downward pressure can make it harder for the other muscles to stabilize the other motions of the arm. It also requires gripping the crayon in a somewhat upright position.
Paint is a great option for improving the drawing experience. While a child's pencil stroke is often "scribbly" or erratic, a paint stroke is generally smooth.
- Finger painting can require less fine motor control, or require the activation of less muscles at a time.
- Washable paints with a brush don't require downward pressure to make a stroke. The paint will make a clear, vivid mark so long as it touches the paper. This means your child only needs to focus on making the motions they want, and not focusing on whether those motions will have a visible effect.
- There are a lot of resources online about how to make stamps or paint brushes on the cheap. These alternative tools definitely step up the fun-factor of painting.
- Paints in general tend to allow for brighter colors, which are more visually appealing to children. They also allow for mixing or blending of colors, which is hard to do with crayons or colored pencils. Intentionally mixing two colors, such as red and blue to make purple, is likely not a skill that'll develop for a while, but seeing the colors change as they interact is exciting.
I would also recommend pastels, Conté crayons, artist chalks, and possibly compressed charcoal (as opposed to willow or vine charcoal will likely be pulverized by their grip). I would remove the wrappers on these, if any, so that flat strokes are possible and upright grips aren't necessary. These media also provide rich strokes without much pressure, although they do make for messier hands.
You can also get woodless graphite pencils, or sticks of graphite, that can be easier for small hands to use compared to the fine points of wood or mechanical pencils.
You can also incorporate other mixed media, such as adhesive-backed objects or things that need to be glued and taped on. These things won't necessarily help develop specific drawing skills, but they do aid with developing expression. They can also provide a fun canvas for drawings to be a part of.
Realize that drawing is a highly skillful activity
As the stages of child drawing development show, learning to draw is an ongoing process. It's not realistic to be able to teach a toddler to draw complex objects. However, toddlers can be quite successful with learning to draw certain shapes (circles, especially!) or a selection of letters (and not just "O"!).
Each stage of development lays the foundation for the next stage1. So even if your child can't draw a recognizable animal, they're still learning to draw.
Kellogg and O'Dell (1967) have described scribbles as the building blocks of children's art.
Early on drawing skills involve the development of fine and gross motor control to a larger extent than many later stages. But without this control, even an adult will have difficultly drawing. Supposing you're not ambidextrous, attempt drawing with your offhand! You'll see how important muscle control is.
So, be mindful that any progress or practice is a success! At this age, if you can get your daughter to sit down and draw at all, then it's an accomplishment and your child is learning. Keep it up!
1: Francks, O. (1979). Scribbles? Yes, They Are Art! Young Children, 34(5), 14-22.
2: Fucigna, C. (1982). Art for Toddlers: A Developmental Approach. Young Children, 37(3), 45-51.